Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Animal Rights, Human Rights"

(Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation)
-by David Nibert
2002
Do you know what it feels like to hold the most important book you've ever read?
I've now known that feeling. Twice.
This book joins "Sex at Dawn", by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, on a very short list - the only absolutely essential books for anyone wishing to understand humanity.
Stylistically, the two are quite different. Ryan and Jetha's work is as entertaining as it is informative, while Nibert tends toward scholarly dispatch. But before you're even done with Chapter 1, you'll understand the import of what you're reading. More concisely than anything i know, these books pull the veil off humanity, pre- and post- agricultural revolution.
There is also one striking similarity - misleading titles. Expectations of a study of animals (or sex) are quickly superseded. "Sex at Dawn" (http://nakedmeadow.blogspot.com/2012/02/sex-at-dawn.html) is about human nature, and "Animal Rights, Human Rights" is about how far we've strayed in the past ten to twenty millenia.
Nibert studies exploitation, on a towering scale. He postulates that the oppression of other animals and humans has had far more than a parallel development - that these two realities feed off and reinforce one another. He diverges from many other animal rights advocates by averring that oppression is NOT about individual attitudes. It's institutionalized, embedded in the most basic structures of our society, and has given rise to every major social ill (sexism, racism, classism, speciesism...). To move beyond this barbarism, a reformer's attitude cannot be enough. Revolution is required.
Cruelty and abuse don't come naturally. For the vast majority of our species' history, we lived in harmony with ourselves and others. Thus, the rationalization required to make oppression feel right requires strong socialization. You can see the foundations as early as Socrates, who argued that "...it is undeniably true that [nature] has made all animals for the sake of man", and Plato, who created a hierarchy in which humans were either "gold", "silver", or "iron". Our language is constructed to make exploitation feel natural - why do we call someone a "meat-eater" rather than a "corpse-eater"? Our most basic laws and religious texts would have you believe that humans aren't even animals (or that, not long ago, women and non-whites weren't even human). Nibert replaces "animals" with "other animals", a distinction others have also made (What, you thought the "other animals" section of this website was because i'm needlessly verbose?). He takes a sociological walk through time since the development of hunting, to show how we came to be this way. In the era of corporate capitalism, our old way of thinking has led to incomprehensible suffering, wholesale extinction of uncountable life forms, and unraveling ecological disaster for any creature fond of moderate temperatures and oxygen. He points the way out - starting with getting all advocates for life on the same page, and creating more democracies of proportionate representation.
He also points to a blindness in my own worldview. In my rush to condemn the genocide of native americans, i've always put them on a pedestal, in no small part for their relatively egalitarian and non-oppressive ways. Yet their attitude toward the animals they slaughtered (filled with ritual and spirituality and reverence) is a classic example of how humans legitimize activities they're not entirely comfortable with.
How can i communicate my urgent esteem for this book? In the days since reading it, an image has popped into my mind - my own corpse, post-suicide, following the example of tibetan monks. Cradled in my right and left hand are two books.
I'm a writer. In this epoch of glorified ego, it's a pretty strong testament that neither of those books were written by me.
Sadly, we also live in the ultimate culture of celebrity. My own demise would lack the resonance of, say, a potentate or pop star. So if you know any such, particularly if they've got that lookin'-for-a-very-high-bridge look in their eyes...
Get 'em these two books. Posthaste.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"I've Seen All Good People"

The most mind-bogglingly ambiguous lyric in rock history.
Nothing else comes close.
We're not talking indecipherable or obscure, a la "sitting on a cornflake" or "nobody heard, not even the chair". We're talking multi-layered ambiguity in a coherent, grammatically-proper lyric that means something very specific. Or something else, perhaps. Or something else altogether? Or this other thing, maybe. Or...
Recorded by Yes for 1971's THE YES ALBUM, the song is a two-part composition. It starts with "Your Move", by Jon Anderson, which was released as a single. The version played on the radio however, almost invariably includes the second part, "I've Seen All Good People", by Chris Squire. All of Chris' lyrics are included in Anderson's section...and indeed, part of what makes this all so tantalizing is that the entire lyric of "I've Seen All Good People" is one single line. There are no surrounding words to give any kind of context, any kind of hint, as to what the hell it's supposed to mean. Nor does scrutiny of "Your Move" provide any seeming answers - the only thing one finds there are chess and Lennon allusions, in the general context of "might isn't necessarily right (or wise)". Once the "All Good People" lyrics take over, all we get is the following line, repeated over and over and over, in a descending spiral:
I've seen all good people turn their heads each day so satisfied I'm on my way
With perhaps intentional perversity, the album provides no punctuation to narrow the possible interpretations.
Is the message one of resignation? Did the singer expect people to turn their heads, and wasn't disappointed? He may have hoped for some other outcome, but that didn't happen, so he's accepting the inevitable apathy of "good people", which is perhaps a euphemism for the establishment?
Is the message one of disgust? Is it the people, not the singer, who are satisfied? Does the singer see self-satisfaction in the faces of all those who turn their heads, and so embraces misanthropy?
Or does it mean that all good people are satisfied the singer is on HIS way?
If so, does that satisfaction arise from knowing the singer is leaving? Or is it from knowing that he's "on his way" to the top?
None of these interpretations are a stretch. Can there be any doubt that this almost diabolical wordplay was Squire's intention? If one were inclined to stretch for more interpretations, how many more might we find? How many more have YOU found, driving alone in your car on a dark and late night, the radio your only friend?
Don't surround yourself with yourself...

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Last Words"

-by George Carlin
(with Tony Hendra)
2009
You know those disclaimers reviewers write when they have some personal connection to their subject matter? I feel i ought write one. But my connection is simply the overwhelming sense of identification that i (and many millions more) have felt with George's material. Whatever nerve he touched, whatever vein he sourced, he's the only comedian who ever made me feel like i was listening to some funnier version of my own thoughts.
His career was towering, enduring, and unprecedented. His 60s work was impersonal and apolitical (even though he knew and adored Lenny Bruce, it took a long time for him to evolve in a similar direction). In the 70s, he realized he could be funnier if he mined the experiences of his own life, but it wasn't until the following decade that he let rip his more naked self. It was at this point that he leapt past the boundaries of stand-up to join a rarefied pantheon, along with Paine, Twain, Thoreau, King, and Mr. Bruce.
The book was culled from decades worth of association with Hendra (THIS IS SPINAL TAP), collecting material for what would be the crowning of George's career, a one-person (sorry, George) Broadway show about his life. He died a year or two shy of realizing that dream, but all the material is here. In that respect, it's much more personal than anything else he's written.
Reading the book, i'm struck with how alike George and i were, at the end. We took different paths to get here - he had a rougher youth, with larceny, military courts-martial, and decades of drug abuse. But at the end, when he sums up his understandings of life, it's an almost eerie mirror for me. He even invokes an alternate version of himself who is almost entirely me - the loner who works in anonymity, running around on no one's hamster wheel, writing his thoughts on his own time and sending them in accordingly.
Another difference between us is that he spent almost all his adult life married...which may be the reason why monogamy is the one glaring social ill he never railed against, even though he may have very much wanted to. Very few of us don't have to kiss somebody's ass, if only to keep domestic peace. If i presume too much, George, it's not without cause.
About drugs however, if i may make an observation hopefully worthy of him, we all use drugs in one form or another, and many of the distinctions between them are so much bullshit. At the most basic level, drugs alter our mind and take us out of our reality. In those terms, comedy is a much more literal drug than you've probably ever considered. In that respect, George Carlin was one of the greatest drugs that several generations of humanity ever ingested.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Andromeda"

ANDROMEDA
2000-2005
"I SURVIVED ANDROMEDA".
Gotta be T-shirts out there somewhere.
Yes, campers, i watched it all. 110 episodes. Five seasons. More than classic TREK and classic GALACTICA - combined. Millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars, swirling down a commode set on permanent flush. This article ends with a marathon, but do NOT take that as a recommendation to watch it. This show had everything you could want. Everything, that is, except...
Writers?
Yeah, that would have been a good idea. Hire some writers. Theirs was an unremitting failure on both levels...the story supervisor was the ultimate absentee landlord, and the script writers cranked out turd after turd after turd. I gutted out the whole series because of dedication to the genre, plus the first two seasons' tease of faltering promise, but mostly because of the Roddenberry connection. Gene's name was in the title (though his contribution was only a few scribbles decades before), and Majel Barrett (every TREK incarnation ever) executive produced...so the possibility of TREK actor drop-ins coudn't be ignored. Alas, Majel either didn't recruit them, or they had the good sense to go spelunking that week. The only ones to appear are John de Lancie (a fine job in a couple flaccid outings) and Tony Todd.
ANDROMEDA is the queen of unresolved threads. Again and again, they toss out characters and story arcs that peter away into nothingness, very often illogically. Sometime in the third season, it all settles into unwatchable dreck, as the only idea the writing staff has after the banishment of story developer Robert Hewitt Wolfe (STAR TREK: DS9) is "Let's have Dylan get his Kirk on!" The ultimate failure of the show was in never making us care about the characters. They never showed us why these people became dedicated to one another. None of the friendships resonate, and too many motivations ring false.
The directors descended to the level of the writing. Again and again, the blocking reveals the hand of someone who has no understanding of how people actually behave in tense moments.
The show always starts with a new quote...which often disappears before you have time to actually read it! What, are they afraid we'll see through the so-so writing? The title credits finally settle for good in season 3 with a voiceover that begs to be mocked with a Crocodile Hunter "danger, danger, danger". The end-credits music is so grating you'll rush for the pre-emptive stop button every time. The blasters make a noise every time you activate them, which is perhaps the most unrealistic prop choice in the history of sci fi. And the performers?
KEVIN SORBO
-Dylan Hunt (110 episodes)
Executive producer Sorbo has the requisite presence for a series lead. It's a shame they couldn't find one for him. His costuming choice after the first few episodes feels a little "casual Friday". It's not as bad as the "Members Only" season of BUCK ROGERS, but it does make you go there. And is it possible i know more about Kevin's taste in women than i should? CASTING NOTICE: seeking females - tall, statuesque, caucasian, and ever-so-faintly horsey.
LISA RYDER
-Beka Valentine (109 episodes)
Passable.
LAURA BERTRAM
-Trance Gemini (109 episodes)
A delightful presence, almost masochistically defaced. Her original look, all blue with a fun tail, turned into a visual downer that mirrors her character's decline. Her final look reminds one of a second-rate Data from FIRST CONTACT.
GORDON MICHAEL WOOLVETT
-Seamus Harper (109 episodes)
Disastrous. Inconceivably, he usurps Michael Shanks (STARGATE: SG1) as the worst sci fi actor of all time. Imagine Neelix in the hands of a hack. Horribly overacted, yet somehow the writers kept thinking he was essential. You'll just want to walk through the screen, boot the director back to community theater, and tell Gordon, "Let's do another take, but this time give me less." Then you'll give the same direction for another take. And another. Sometime tomorrow, you'll have a usable performance. How much of the blame should be laid at his feet, is a good question. Certainly the writers thought they had him nailed, but they painfully didn't - nor were they able to produce lines that made us believe he's as intelligent as advertised. It takes 109 episodes to finally produce one scene that doesn't make you cringe.
LEXA DOIG
-Rommie (109 episodes)
Tantalizing. So much potential. The one character you almost really care about. You want her android story arc to be fascinating, but like everything else, it peters off into tortured limbo. The romance you keep waiting for between her and Dylan never happens. It should have been one of the key threads of the show. Part of this is understandable, as it takes about four final season episodes to realize that she's only being shot from the head up because...she's pregnant! Apparently, sabatoging his own series wasn't enough for father Shanks. By the time she fully returns, there's too little time to salvage anything. They scoot her off in the final scene, to leave Dylan alone on the bridge. You'll silently scream "WRONG, WRONG, WRONG".
KEITH HAMILTON COBB
-Tyr Anasazi (68 episodes)
Fine potential dribbled away. They had a chance to give us an insight into a different way of thinking, with this nietschean species. A race for whom self-interest is everything (overtly, not covertly like us). But instead of fleshing out that alternate paradigm, committing to it and making it consistent, perhaps imbuing Tyr with character growth...it all just piddles away.
STEVE BACIC
-Rhade (45 episodes)
A fine performance doomed by desultory writing.
BRENT STAIT
-Rev Bem (36 episodes)
A sweet performance of a well-conceived character. Allergies to the makeup ended his tenure early, but in the big picture, maybe his allergies were wiser than he.
BRANDY LEDFORD
-Doyle (20 episodes)
A last-season android fill-in who's not as awful as you fear.
NOT-WRETCHED-A-THON (season)
-The Sum of Its Parts (1)
Treading on well-trod ground, a pleasant enough meditation on matters of genuine science fiction - the crew receive an invitation from a supposedly-mythical collective of machines who live in the empty space between star systems. Their emissary assembles into sentience, and gets to know the crew. The collective's intentions are less munificent than advertised, however. The emissary circumvents its command to disassemble, and helps the crew escape. Guest star Matt Smith offers a lovely performance.
-Its Hour Come 'Round at Last (1)
This season 1 finale ups the ante, and the octane. Harper finds a lost file in the ship's A.I., which re-boots and perceives the new crew as intruders, while resuming an ancient mission into the heart of magog territory. The ship is boarded and the action is scorching, mostly because it imperils the cushiest conceit of all sci fi serials - the foreknowledge that no cast regular will die. But character after character gets creamed. On ANDROMEDA, this conceit is combined with the notion that a ship with a nominal crew of four thousand could be successfully run by six. Even though that first conceit will never feel more contrived than in the season 2 resumption, you may have to pick your jaw up after this one.
-Lava and Rockets (2)
The series' greatest burst of romantic/sexual chemistry, in an episode that features the three most resonant characters. Dylan is pursued by bounty hunters in an "appropriated" tourist barge with an outraged novice pilot (Kristin Lehman - JUDGING AMY). Under fire, the two of them come to appreciate each other. Tyr and Rommie search for them in the Maru. A little sexy, a little human, a little loosey goosey...
-The Lone and Level Sands (3)
Tight, compelling, and (most importantly) a sci fi serial idea that feels like something you've never seen...and you can't imagine why someone didn't think of it before. The Maru flees from pirates into deep space. They're rescued by a ship that Earth sent out centuries earlier, the Bellerophon. Equipped with the most powerful engine ever, of pre-slipstream design...meaning the faster-than-light travel comes with time distortion - to the crew, a journey of centuries has been measurable in years. The Maru unable to get home, they get caught up in a mutiny triggered by the knowledge that Earth is now a slave world. Rommie has a tantalizing romance with the ship's captain (TREK luminary Tony Todd - CANDYMAN, BEASTMASTER: THE EYE OF BRAXUS). A well-written story elevated by Todd's performance.
-The Unconquerable Man (3)
A passable little alternate reality exploration, as the original events of the story reverse, with Dylan dying and Rhade trying to resurrect the Commonwealth 300 years later.
-Day of Judgement, Day of Wrath (3)
An offering given the juice of sentimentality, in a marriage of STARGATE and ANDROMEDA (a second-rate series plus one that's sliding into third). Guest stars Michael Shanks and Christopher Judge play A.I. avatars in a death struggle. Not awful at all.
-The Heart of the Journey, part 1 (5)
Okay, actually kinda wretched. But it's worthwhile for feminist afficionados, as it's perhaps the only time in sci fi history that female regulars outnumber males on a starship crew. The writers play this up with an estrogen-enhanced slow-mo. There's also a blatant tribute to STAR WARS that would be sad if this series had worked, but in the context of a five-year failure, is kinda nice.